If nothing else, President Donald Trump’s July Fourth speech at Mount Rushmore clarified the battle lines of our culture war.
The New York Times called the speech “dark and divisive,” while an Associated Press headline declared, “Trump pushes racial division.” A Washington Post story said the speech “crystallized” the president’s “unyielding push to preserve Confederate symbols and the legacy of white domination.”
Democratic senator Tammy Duckworth insisted that Trump “spent all his time talking about dead traitors.”
To be clear — and despite all of this — the media and the Left didn’t freak out about a speech extolling the valor of Robert E. Lee, the statesmanship of Jefferson Davis, or the prowess of Nathan Bedford Forrest. They didn’t scorn a speech pining for Antebellum America or expressing ambiguity about the Civil War. They didn’t pan a speech that slighted the quest for justice and civil rights throughout American history.
As a matter of fact, Trump didn’t mention any Confederates at all. He hailed Abraham Lincoln at length and called the Civil War “the struggle that saved our union and extinguished the evil of slavery.” He cited the repulse of Pickett’s charge and quoted the Battle Hymn of the Republic. He said we must defend “the principles that propelled the abolition of slavery in America” and “the ideas that were the foundation of the righteous movement for civil rights.”
It would be difficult to get a more textbook expression of the American civic religion than the speech at Rushmore. It would be difficult to get a more wide-ranging appreciation of the warriors, inventors, adventurers, reformers, entertainers, and athletes who have made the country what it is. It’d be difficult to get a more affirming account of the greatness of America and its meaning to the world.
And, yet, the speech was tested and found wanting.
Trump’s attacks on what he called “a new far-left fascism” and a cultural revolution “designed to overthrow the American Revolution” were indeed hard-edged, but who can doubt the basic truth of the claims?
There’s a fear afoot in the land, as a merciless authoritarian spirit informs a spate of firings and cancellations. The day before Trump’s speech, a Boeing executive resigned over something he had written . . . in 1987.
Protestors have targeted commemorations of every single one of the presidents etched on Mount Rushmore, who the day before yesterday would have been completely unassailable giants of American history. Vandals splashed red paint on statues of Washington in New York City, and the aforementioned Tammy Duckworth said she’s open to having a conversation about whether statues of the Father of the Country should still stand.
The setting for Trump’s speech is itself now deemed problematic. A CNN report previewing the event said Trump “will be at Mount Rushmore, where he’ll be standing in front of a monument of two slave owners and on land wrestled away from Native Americans.”
There’s no doubt that Trump is a deeply flawed messenger. Indeed, days after the speech, he, out of nowhere, attacked NASCAR on Twitter for banning the display of Confederate flags.
But it wasn’t just Trump the messenger who was attacked in the aftermath of the Mount Rushmore speech; it was the message.
Patriotic sentiments of the sort that have adorned American oratory for centuries were deemed hateful and divisive. A celebration of the Founders that once would have been the stuff of schoolbooks and primers was considered controversial. A defense of the nation’s ideals was waved away. No, nothing to see here — only hate and division.
Surely, if some other Republican president had given the Mount Rushmore speech, the pushback wouldn’t have been as intense. But this isn’t just about Trump. It goes much deeper.
Critics of the speech objected to what they said was its wildly exaggerated account of the stakes in the culture war — and at the same time, they vindicated that account by equating patriotism with white supremacy.